Cheetah sheet: how they can spot known human voices

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Cheetah sheet: how they can spot known human voices

The cats have shown a higher visual attention to human voices that sound familiar

Cape Town bureau chief


Cheetahs can spot the voices of familiar humans.
The discovery, in an experiment with 11 captive-born and handraised males at a cheetah sanctuary in Stellenbosch, is the first evidence that wild cats have this ability.
“We found that cheetahs showed a higher visual attention and changed activity more often and faster when the voice was familiar than when it was unfamiliar,” said Robyn Hetem of Wits University and French colleagues, who revealed their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.
“It could support the idea that early experience and proximity to humans are at least as important as domestication when it comes to the ability to recognise humans.”
The experiments yielding the groundbreaking finding were done at Cheetah Outreach early in 2017 with animals that had been familiar with their regular handlers for at least two years.
Handlers and strangers were recorded saying: “I’ll need a back-handler here” – a phrase commonly used while cheetahs were being fed or moved – and the cats’ reactions were observed after the recordings were played through loudspeakers.
“All the recorded persons were English speakers, and the intonation and pronunciation were standardised as much as possible,” said the researchers. Findings included: All 11 cheetahs looked at the loudspeaker if the voice was familiar, while only five looked if it was unfamiliar;
Cheetahs looked at the loudspeaker six times faster and for almost five times as long after a familiar voice was played;
Eight out of 11 cheetahs changed their activity in response to the familiar voice, while only two did so in response to an unfamiliar voice; and
Cheetahs changed their activity three times faster when they heard a familiar voice. Hetem, from the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at Wits, and her fellow authors, said: “The strong visual attention when hearing a familiar voice could be seen as a mark of interest, since the simulated handler may want to take out the animal or feed it.
“The cheetah had therefore probably learned to recognise the familiar voice through associative learning.
“Our study suggests that the mechanisms and cognitive capacities that allow the auditory recognition of individuals are present in cheetahs.”
The scientists suggested more research on cheetahs’ vocal communication, which consisted of eight calls. “The meow is the most common vocalisation in cheetahs, as it is in their domestic relatives. It is produced across context and encodes both sex and identity of the caller,” they said.
“On the contrary, growls, hisses and howls are specific to offensive contexts, while chirrs are specific to mating and purrs are produced mainly during human contact.”

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